What does the eastern German city of Dresden have in common with the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman? Nothing yet. But following a meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee on Thursday, the famous Elbe Valley likely has just one year before it joins the Oman refuge on the short list of World Heritage sites that will soon lose their status.
Meeting in Quebec City, the committee decided to give Dresden one last chance to rethink its planned bridge across the Elbe River. Even as construction is underway, there are still a number of legal challenges working their way through the court system aimed at torpedoing the project.
"Although the committee decided last year that it would remove the property from the World Heritage List if a bridge were built, it decided to give Dresden more time in view of legal proceedings underway in Germany," UNESCO said in a statement on its Web site. "The committee felt that the opposition to the construction of the bridge must be given a chance to succeed and that retaining the property on the list would help that fight."
UNESCO, along with many critics of the bridge, claim that a tunnel would be much more suited to the site so as not to disturb the beautiful views through the 18 kilometer-long valley, crowned with the now-rebuilt Dresden city center. Environmentalists are also opposed to a bridge out of concern for the habitat of the endangered lesser horseshoe bat.
Should the Elbe Valley be removed from the list, it would also set a record for the shortest time spent on the World Heritage List. It received its UNESCO badge of honor in just 2004, only to be placed on the endangered list two years later. So far, most court cases brought against the bridge have failed due to judges' unwillingness to counter the region's voters. In a 2005 referendum, 67.9 percent of the city's voters came out in favor of the bridge -- support which came largely from a desire to solve the city's traffic woes.
Critics have pointed out that voters at the time were not aware that by moving to build the bridge, the city might have to sacrifice its World Heritage title. Still, a survey carried out last September found that over 63 percent of Dresdners continue to support the bridge project.
On Friday, the president of the National Committee for the Protection of Monuments in Germany, Eva-Maria Stange -- who is also the Minister of Science for the state of Saxony where Dresden is located -- demanded that construction on the bridge be stopped immediately. But Dresden's mayor-elect Helma Orosz blasted UNESCO saying "from the perspective of Dresden, the (UNESCO) decision is wrong, incomprehensible and unjust."
Dresden did change the design of the bridge slightly in an effort to placate UNESCO officials, making it appear lighter and airier. But the committee remains unmoved. The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was stricken from the list in 2007 after Oman decided to reduce the size of the protected area by 90 percent to explore for oil.